The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mexicans protest López Obrador’s moves to weaken election agency

Demonstrators filled Zócalo square in Mexico City on Feb. 26 to protest measures that would weaken the national electoral institute. (Video: Reuters)
4 min

MEXICO CITY — Tens of thousands of people jammed Mexico’s grandest plaza and rallied around the country on Sunday to protest a law that would weaken the national electoral institute, with many fearful the measure could hobble Mexico’s young democracy.

The turnout underscored how much the electoral law has galvanized voters, after four years in which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador largely dominated political life. The veteran leftist’s party holds a majority in Congress and has swept most governor’s offices, outmaneuvering a divided opposition discredited by corruption scandals.

The uproar over the new law comes amid growing concern about backsliding in democracies that replaced dictatorships in many parts of Latin America after the Cold War.

The demonstrators packed Mexico City’s Zócalo, the vast square in front of the presidential palace that holds about 100,000 people. Many wore shirts and baseball caps in pink, the color of the National Electoral Institute, or INE.

“Don’t touch our vote!” they chanted, waving Mexican flags and hoisting umbrellas against the late morning sun.

Lopez Obrador overhauls electoral law, sparking protests

“We’re not ready to lose our democracy,” said Óscar Casanova, 75, a businessman who attended the rally with his relatives. He said he feared that Mexico was in danger of becoming “another country, like in Central America or South America – like Venezuela.”

Many Mexicans consider the 33-year-old INE to be one of the most important institutions in the country’s transition from seven decades of one-party rule. It replaced a fraud-riddled electoral system with a tightly regulated regimen overseen by thousands of workers who issue voter IDs and control virtually all aspects of state and federal balloting.

López Obrador charges that the autonomous electoral institute has turned into a bloated bureaucracy headed by lavishly paid civil servants, some of them close to the opposition. He says that his plan to slash the INE’s budget and staff — part of a broader government austerity drive – will save $150 million a year.

Many of López Obrador’s critics worry the law passed last week is aimed at keeping his party in power in presidential elections next year.

“He wants to change the constitution for his own benefit,” said Fabiola González, 53, a high school teacher who joined several friends at the march.

Lopez Obrador's cost-cutting spree is transforming Mexico

Yet López Obrador is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, and his party is widely seen as likely to win the 2024 race — with or without the new law. Some analysts think López Obrador’s antipathy to the electoral body is rooted in his bitterness over his narrow loss in the 2006 presidential election.

The electoral legislation has alarmed both Mexico’s opposition and members of the U.S. Congress.

“By approving President López Obrador’s proposal … the Mexican Congress has imperiled the future of its country’s democratic institutions,” the chairmen of the House and Senate foreign relations committees – Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) – said last week. “Returning Mexico to its dark past of presidentially controlled elections not only sets the clock back on its democracy, but also U.S.-Mexico relations.”

Sunday’s demonstration drew thousands of middle-class voters who have become increasingly disillusioned by the president’s attacks on journalists, academics and other critics, and his broadsides against past governments’ “neoliberal” economic policies.

López Obrador remains popular, however, especially among the poor half of the population. He has boosted social spending and the minimum wage, and appeals to ordinary Mexicans with folksy language and constant travels around the country – often by car or commercial airline.

Arturo Hernández, 53, who runs a tiny shop in the working-class Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec, said the president’s attention to Mexicans like him was a marked change from the past.

“For an Indigenous person, a greeting from the president is huge,” he said. “We didn’t see this before.”

And for all the concerns about López Obrador following the path of authoritarian leftist leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, the Mexican president has largely maintained his country’s orthodox economic policies and free-trade agreements.

Hernández noted that Mexico had enjoyed economic stability, apart from the deep recession triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. “If not, there wouldn’t be so many cars,” he said. “There wouldn’t be so many Walmarts.”

The new law is expected to face a swift court challenge. At Sunday’s demonstration in Mexico City, a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court, José Ramón Cossío, urged the magistrates to declare the measure unconstitutional.

“We know the pressures you are facing from those who want to take over the Mexican electoral system,” he said.

For his part, López Obrador plans to counter Sunday’s protest with a mega-demonstration of his own in the Zócalo in three weeks, in honor of the country’s 1938 expropriation of foreign oil companies.